On going viral and BBC bias

On Thursday I clicked on a link on Reddit which was supposedly a blog about how the BBC had arranged for Shadow Foreign Office minister Stephen Doughty to resign live on its Daily Politics programme just before Prime Minister’s Questions (or to be completely accurate, 4 minutes after he had resigned by email). I got a 404 error, so found a cached version via Google. I thought the contents of the blog were interesting enough to share on my blog, which I did here. Being honest, I did think a lot of people would be annoyed by the story as I was, but I never expected the reaction it got. Pretty quickly, people starting retweeting the blog and in 24 hours, this blog got more page views than it got in the whole of last year. The story was reported on the websites of most of the newspapers and it has now ultimately resulted in the Labour Party putting into a complaint to the BBC about the way it reported Doughty’s resignation.

Reaction to the story was quite mixed. Again, being honest, it was mostly divided along the lines of whether or not you support Jeremy Corbyn or not. If you don’t support Corbyn, you probably didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

One observation I would make is that political journalists in particular thought this was a total non-story. Their basic reation was “So what? That’s just good journalism”. I think the main reason for that is that they have inside knowledge about how journalism works, particularly in politics. Those of us who aren’t journalists, although we may suspect this is how things are done, don’t know for sure, and so this episode was a certain drawing back of the curtain, and what we saw, we didn’t like.

I think my settled view on this now is that if any other news organisation had reported Doughty’s resignation in this way, I would be annoyed, but accept that they had the right to report it in that way and concede it was a good scoop. In general, I think the closeness between political journalists and politicians is too close. They seem to feed off each other and it often seems to result in reporters collaborating with politicians to make the news rather than just reporting it. Perhaps this is the way it has to be, but I don’t like it. In this instance though, it was the BBC who engineered the ‘scoop’ and I – and it seems many others – believe the BBC should be held to a higher standard than other media who have no duty of impartiality. For this reason, I think it was a mistake for them to collude with Doughty over the timing of his resignation.

But does this episode demonstrate the BBC has a pro-Tory, or right wing bias? A lot of people point out that the BBC’s leading political staff are sympathetic to the Conservative Party, but I’m not sure that’s enough to demonstrate bias to one party. To me it seems to have a pro-establishment bias, backing a very narrow set of agreed ‘moderate’ ideas and policies, and being unable to cover anything outside of that very narrow range objectively. Ultimately, this seems to mean they cover whoever is in government more favourably – at least when New Labour was up against the Conservative Party.

The problem now though is that Jeremy Corbyn falls outside of the narrow range considered ‘moderate’ (as do UKIP, the SNP and Eurosceptic Tories), and so we see the BBC taking a clear line of giving so called ‘moderates’ within the Labour Party plenty of opportunity to say uncomplimentary things about their leader. In the same way, their coverage favoured the ‘No’ campaign during the Indy Referendum and when the EU referendum gets under way, the BBC will put its weight fully behind the ‘remain’ campaign. That’s just what the BBC is, and while Labour’s recent complaint may have an impact on the BBC’s output, it will never give Corbyn a fair hearing.

That’s the last I’m planning to say on this subject here. Normal service will resume shortly both in terms of content, and, I strongly suspect, in terms of page views!


Tories kill two birds with one stone over BBC funding

New culture secretary John Whittingdale spoke today in Parliament about the Tories’ plans for the BBC. Headline news was their highly anticipated intention to force the BBC to take on the costs for free TV licences for the over 75s. In doing so they are in effect killing two birds with one stone.

The cost of the free TV licences in around £750m, so this would leave significantly less money for the BBC to spend on its core business. At the same time though, Whittingdale announced that the BBC would also be able to means test the free licences if they wish, so at a stroke they are dishing out a sizable cut to the BBC’s budget and in effect hacking away at one of the few remaining universal benefits.

Since returning to power in 2010, many Tories have been itching to remove these universal benefits (free over 60s bus travel is another), but they understood that these are popular with pensioners. Almost half of over 65s voted Tory in May. What this latest announcement does then is allow them to hack away at this universal benefit, while shifting the blame onto someone else i.e. the BBC.

If the Beeb don’t means test the free licences, they will face difficult choices elsewhere, and if they do, the Government can just say they disagree but it has nothing to do with them. This is exactly the same strategy they have adopted in local government. They slashed budgets, but removed funding ring fences , so if a council stopped funding something, the Government simply said the council was implementing ‘political’ cuts.

Plus ça change, but is this clever, gutless, contemptible, or a mixture of the three?

Getting your priorities right

After his somewhat surprising victory last week, David Cameron gave a speech outlining his intention to bring the country together. About his last government he said:

The government I led did important work. It laid the foundations for a better future and now we must build on them. I truly believe we’re on the brink of something special in our country: we can make Britain a place where a good life is in reach for everyone who is willing to work and do the right thing.

So foundations laid, a majority won, time to hit the ground running with policies that will help achieve that ‘good life’ for all right? It was a nice speech, but the priorities of his new government seem rather different. Far from building on these foundations, the immediate priorities of the Conservative Party seem to be rather different. Here’s the policies that seem to be top of their list:

Bash the BBC

Further undermine free speech under the guise of tackling extremism

Hobbling the Freedom of Information Act

All but ending the right to strike

Scrapping the Human Rights Act

I not quite sure how these things go together with ensuring the good life for all (at least all who are “willing to work hard and do the right thing”, but I’m sure the ‘one nation’, ‘good life’ will be announced soon!

BBC sees no alternative to cuts

The BBC have a story today on their website called “Will the public accept the cuts to come?” The first sentence is “Whoever wins the election, more cuts are on their way.” Cuts are inevitable, end of discussion. The article then goes on to list all the areas of public spending that could be under threat, and whether the public will stand for what’s coming. While it’s certainly true that all the main parties agree they need to “balance the budget”, and think they need to cut spending by roughly the same amount in order to do so, the question of whether we actually need to balance the budget or to achieve this through cuts to expenditure is far from a settled question. The BBC can argue it is being impartial by saying that all parties agree cuts are coming, by unquestioningly accepting the need for cuts, it’s not really providing readers with a complete picture.

At the end of the BBC’s article, it says “While the economists and analysts of the Westminster village are aware more austerity lies ahead…”. It could try asking some of those economists what they think about the state of the economic debate in the UK, to see how closely the political discussion mirrors the debate in academia. They might be surprised. It would be pretty easy to find some economists (even rather mainstream ones) who would question the entire premise of the BBC’s reporting here, which in my view would be very healthy indeed.

Response from the BBC about lack of coverage of anti-austerity demo

I submitted a complaint on Sunday to the BBC about their lack of coverage of Saturday’s anti-austerity march in London. I think many others (hundreds?) did too. Today I got a response, and I thought I’d stick it up here to see if it’s the same to what others have received:

“We covered this demonstration on the BBC News Channel with five reports throughout Saturday evening, on the BBC News website on Sunday, as well as on social media. We choose which stories we cover based on how newsworthy they are and what else is happening and we didn’t provide extensive coverage because of a number of bigger national and international news stories that day, including the escalating crisis in Iraq, British citizens fighting in Syria and the death of Gerry Conlon. 

We frequently report on the UK economy and what it means for the British public. We also reflect the concerns of people such as those demonstrating, and others who hold opposing views, across our daily news output on TV, radio as well as online, and we also explore them in more depth including in our political programming and current affairs investigations, debates on ‘Question Time’ and during interviews and analysis on programmes such as ‘PM’ and ‘Newsnight’. Inevitably, there may be disagreements over the level of prominence we give to stories, but we believe our coverage of this subject has been fair and impartial.”

So an admission that (by omission) that they didn’t cover the march while it was taking place, and a reference to where they cover dissent elsewhere. What do people think? Convincing? I’ve now decided to complain whenever I see similar instances of bias or omission. I’d urge you to do the same. Hopefully if enough people complain, they will at least take it into consideration when covering (or not) future news stories.